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April 2023 Feature: Shia Shabazz Smith

Updated: May 19, 2023

Smith's work has been recognized by the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and the Tribeca Film Festival and she was appointed Muse of African American Poetry for the City of Alameda, CA.


Photo by Salihah Saadiq


Shia Shabazz Smith is a poet, educator, and screenwriter who strives to ensure that her art and her service represent her varied communities at large. A widely published poet, Shia’s affiliations include Cave Canem Fellow, VONA, The Austin Project, and UC Berkeley’s Poetry for the People. Her honors include finalist placement for poetry and screenwriting, ranging from recognition in TORCH Literary Arts as the inaugural issue’s “Spark” to distinguished as Muse of African American Poetry for the City of Alameda. Also an experienced screenwriter, Shia has written five pilots, tens of shorts film scripts, and ten feature-length screenplays… and counting. Shia’s narrative short film, Curdled – a hilarious glimpse of what a prenatal support group of women over 40, might look like- has screened internationally at eight film festivals. The film stars Keke Palmer, Robinne Lee, and Chenoa Maxwell. Her screenwriting honors include finalist placement in the Moondance and Tribeca’s All-Access competitions, multiple advancements in the NYC Midnight Screenplay Competitions, and three-time, stage two project advancements in the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. Shia’s website documents her past, recent, and forthcoming projects. Shia is a high school teacher in a community school for students with mild/moderate learning challenges where she has taught both “Script-to-Screen” and poetry classes. Shia lives in Oakland, California, with her beautiful family and their beloved cat, T’Challa. Follow Shia on her website and on Instagram and Twitter.


Curdled (excerpt)

by Shia Shabazz Smith



INT. INTERVIEW ROOM - DAY


Near hysterics, Tara’s OTF interview.


TARA

You can look at them and tell they

are support groupies. Waiting to

tell me mom’s... dying.

6.

Tara starts balling again.

TARA

My last several trips home, mom’s

condition has been getting worse

and worse. She just didn’t want to

tell me.


INT. MARATARA MANOR - MASTER BATHROOM - DAY

SEVEN MONTHS AGO. Mara kneels over the toilet, vomiting. She doesn’t notice Tara who enters aghast. Tara immediately turns on her heels, hurries away sobbing.


TARA (V.O.)

She would never throw up lobster.

Never!


INT. MARATARA MANOR - MASTER BEDROOM - DAY


THREE MONTHS AGO. Tennis outfit on, racket in hand, Tara enters excitedly only to find Mara snoring; sleep mask covering her eyes. She turns on her heels and races away, in tears.


TARA (V.O.)

And she slept in on a Saturday. We

missed our noon lesson!


Mara snores, unawares.


INT. MARATARA MANOR - WALK-IN CLOSET - DAY


LAST VISIT. Tara spies on Mara as Mara attempts to fasten the waist of her pants around her protruding belly. Horrified, dressed identically, Tara storms off in tears.


TARA (V.O.)

And all the weight she’s gained!

INT. MARATARA MANOR - MAIN ROOM - DAY


BACK TO PRESENT, Mara and Tara are a mess of make-up streaks and tears.


TARA

Pregnant?


Dana hands Tara a tissue. Tara blows her nose, sobers quickly.

7.

TARA

She can’t be pregnant.

She’s forty-three. And she’s dying.



###



The Interview

Conducted via email in April 2023 by Amanda Johnston


Torch is proud to have published you as a feature in our first issue, Torch 2006, selected by Sharon Bridgforth as her Spark. Since then, you have continued to build an incredible career as an educator, poet, and screenwriter. What feeds your creative practice and inspires you to keep writing?


Sharon Bridgforth is a sage. The universe aligned our paths at a time when I needed the sincere quality and caliber of mentorship and profound care that only she could offer. I am ever grateful for her “seeing me” and for the gift of being the first featured Spark for Torch, my beloved literary home. As I navigate my journey into screenwriting, this moment feels fortuitously full circle.


What feeds me…? It’s probably not the most glamorous response but my mortality feeds my creative practice. The impermanence of moments, relationships, and people keeps me writing. Unfortunately, writing is so much a part of the fabric of who I am at this point that I couldn’t quit if I wanted to. (Believe me, I’ve tried.) But when I am not writing, there is a death of small things happening in my soul. Writing helps me to process life and explore the richness of interpretations and meanings and layers. Not to mention, I LOVE words. And I love attempting the seemingly impossible task of trying to convey meaning with this very limited supply of letters and words as symbols for what is ultimately ineffable. Using the time I have on this earth to share what I might through this medium feels like what I was put here to do.


Your film, Curdled, is a funny and powerful affirmation of reproductive rights. Why was this script important for you to write?


I wrote Curdled when I was in my late thirties and pregnant. I thought I was going through perimenopause and… SURPRISE! (“Peri-meno-pregnant!”) Before that, other than writing, pregnancy with my previous two children had been my greatest love and my most unequivocal joy. But when my doctor and other medical professionals kept coming at me with statements like, “Babies born to older mothers have a higher risk of (FILL IN THE SCARY BLANK),” I decided that I knew my body better than they did. Whoever this baby was and however this baby entered the world, I was blessed with their coming. I know mothering to be my greatest effort of love. So, rather than prepare for all of the uncertainties and riddle my body with worry, I surrounded myself with love and joy and remained prayerful for a safe delivery for me and our son.


Initially, Curdled was simply my processing of what I had heard and seen in friends who had given birth near or post 40, as well as what I had experienced as a “geriatric mom,” which, according to the Cleveland Clinic, is “ a medical term to describe people who are over age 35 during pregnancy.” Curdled was important to me because, over the years, I realized how often I had been silenced; as a Black woman, a survivor, a divorcee, as a “past her prime” woman, and now as a mother. Until then, motherhood was the only thing I had really gotten right. (Empirical Evidence: My children are KILLING the game of life! They are outstanding humans; brilliant, beautiful, talented, kind… I digress.) At that time, during this third and final pregnancy, giving voice to my experience was intended to counter the overwhelming medical data that I perceived had an agenda that didn’t include me. My experience was important. Each of the women in Curdled represents some aspect of the beautiful and complex challenge of being a mother AND being a daughter. There is so much that is being reconciled in the transaction of pregnancy and birth. At the time, my own mother had been diagnosed with an early onset of a rare form of dementia and Curdled helped me to stand in and process all of that in the best way I knew how at the time. I am immensely grateful to the creative team and executive producers (Director Yolande Geralds, Producer Courtney Carreras, and Executive Producers Jim R. Metellus, Veronica M. Robinson, and Keke Palmer) and to the ENTIRE (overwhelmingly woman-filled) cast and crew who saw the jewel that is Curdled and contributed their remarkable talents to birth this incredible experience in storytelling and filmmaking. Without seeing and acknowledging the vast possibilities of support and love and life and genius, we aren’t adequately representing life.


Curdled stars talented actors including Keke Palmer, Robinne Lee, and Chenoa Maxwell, and was directed by Yolande Geralds. What was the process like for you as the screenwriter to see your story brought to life with this phenomenal cast and crew?


The entire making of Curdled was pretty incredible. To have my vision interpreted by Yolande (Geralds) was a dream. She and Courtney (Carreras), along with Lisa Love, brought together the resources and magic that ultimately became the film and my secondary education in film production. And the actors… SHEESH! I had been a long-time admirer of Robinne Lee and Chenoa Maxwell… since Hav Plenty! On top of that, for years, I actually taught an “etymology of words” unit for my students that began with “Akeelah and the Bee.” So, needless to say, I have always been a Keke Palmer fan and I have earned massive cool points with my students.


It can be unusual for a screenwriter (who is not also directing) to be a part of the entire process. I went to L.A., for an initial casting process where I first met Keke and it was EVERYTHING! A week or two later, we shot Curdled over a weekend (Friday through Sunday) and I was an active member of the production team (as Script Supervisor and general “assisting”) on set during the entire shoot. I cried on the first day after we shot the first scene. I remember stopping Chenoa Maxwell during a break and telling her how funny her delivery was and how much I loved one of her lines. She said, “Well, YOU wrote it!” It was then that the entirety of the process dawned on me. I WROTE THAT SHIT! Another fun side note is that I wrote, co-produced, and ended up singing the end credits song, “Old Mama.” (Bucket list item… CHECK!) I worked on each stage of the process; from pre-production through production to post. That was a real gift.


We shot in 2013 and hit the festival circuit through 2015. Since then, I have grown very close to a few of the actors and remain connected to most (whom I secretly refer to as all of the “Baby Mamas” of Curdled). Each offered tremendous talents to the film and is an incredible human in her own right. For my first film, the experience was perfection. I wouldn’t change a thing.


What advice would you give to emerging screenwriters?


First and foremost, the obvious: watch a multitude of movies, read a superabundance of scripts, and WRITE, WRITE, WRITE! There is no story without the tellers (writers) so be GOOD at it! Write badly until you get good at it (and you won’t know when that is, by the way). Screenwriting is both art and craft. Embrace and bask in both. Engage the art in ways that fill you up. Learn the craft the way you learn best. If you are a reader, my top three recommendations would be “How to Write a Movie in 21 Days” by Viki King, “Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need” by Blake Snyder, and “On Writing” by Stephen King. If you are a “workshopper,” I might also recommend the book that goes along with the workshop that I HIGHLY recommend, STORY by Robert McKee. If, like me, you thrive in communities of learners, find out what classes might be available at your local community college or what film organizations exist in your town. STORY changed my life. After that, in those early years, I subsequently attended numerous screenwriting classes and workshops, then went on to take production, directing, and acting classes so that I could understand the full scope of this industry I had hoped to find a lasting career in. It changed my life. If possible, get a good mentor. As a poet, I was BLESSED to be a part of writing communities like VONA, Cave Canem, The Austin Project, and Poetry for the People where, in the company of highly regarded mentors, I was able to hone my craft and my humanity by observing and creating art that ultimately (and forever) enriched my life. By the time I listened to the advice of Stacey Evans Morgan (my mentor whom I credit for the inspiration for my entry into my now beloved screenwriting), I knew to seek out communities of people who were committed to the same journey; communities where camaraderie trumps competition and love trumps EVERYTHING. Finally, allow yourself the space to celebrate success at every level and mourn the inevitability of failures. Take risks. Fail forward. The joy and the pain will come and go. Your job, devoted screenwriter, is to keep writing, no matter what.


What projects are you working on now?


I recently completed a pilot for a project out of Chicago that is currently in pre-production. I also recently began working for an Oakland-based Black youth organization to write a couple of projects, the first of which is an animated series. Regarding my personal projects - the way my brain works - ideas are constantly clamoring for my attention. The ones that come through most intensely win. A couple of months ago, I woke up with an inspired thought. I am working on the first draft of it and collaborating with a partner to write it. It is, in fact, one of the best ideas I have EVER had. (I say this about every project baby; call each my favorite. Don’t tell this one.)


You live and teach in Oakland. What are your go-to spots for creative inspiration?


Being in movie theaters is my happy place to become inspired again and again. I LOVE catching a film at The Grand Lake Theater or The New Parkway Theater. I also love walking along the shops on Lakeshore, dancing at live music events or any gig where my drummer-singer husband plays, rollerskating at the Brooklyn Basin, and hanging out anywhere in or around the Embarcadero/Jack London Square.


What music is setting the vibe for a chill Sunday morning at home?


Donnie Hathaway (my October 1st birthday-mate), Lalah Hathaway, Gregory Porter, and H.E.R.


If you are introducing yourself to someone through food, what’s on the menu?


A Jamaican beef patty and a brilliantly tossed green salad with grilled prawns as appetizers, Thai curry chicken and veggies over rice entree, and a dark chocolate truffle OR a finely cut slice of tiramisu for dessert with a cup of oat-milk splashed rich dark roast coffee.


How can people support you?

Follow me on social media. Root for me and say my name. Come to readings when I have them or am featured. Watch my films when I make them. Keep kind words on your lips about me and speak them to the ancestors to guide me.


Name another Black woman writer people should follow.

Nijla Mumin - Nijla is hella dope. She makes courage look effortless.




###



Torch Literary Arts is a 501(c)3 nonprofit established to publish and promote creative writing by Black women. We publish contemporary writing by experienced and emerging writers alike. TORCH has featured work by Toi Derricotte, Tayari Jones, Sharon Bridgforth, Crystal Wilkinson, Patricia Smith, Natasha Trethewey, Elizabeth Alexander, and others. Programs include the Wildfire Reading Series, writing workshops, and retreats.

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